by Stephani Sutherland, PhD
Mindfulness has been widely touted as a way to improve attention—in fact the term is often used to mean attention management—but how does practice really affect our mind’s focus? A study by USC researcher Randye J. Semple set out to answer that question and found that some but not all aspects of attention improved with practice.
Forty-five subjects were assigned to practice either mindfulness meditation or progressive muscle relaxation, which mimics the physical benefits of mindfulness, or were placed on a wait-list for mindfulness training and served as control subjects. Those in the mindfulness group received two individual training sessions, and then were asked to practice mindfulness for twenty minutes twice daily for four weeks with the help of an audiotape, written instructions and an activity log.
After the four weeks, subjects underwent a series of tests meant to measure qualities of attention. In one task, for example, participants were instructed to press a red button each time a letter appeared in the center of a computer screen, but to press a blue button when they saw the letter “X” specifically preceded by the letter “A.” Participants also performed tests to measure their mood and anxiety level.
The tests gauged four aspects of attention: Sustained vigilance describes how well one keeps their attention on the task at hand; concentration marks the ability to focus on a task; inhibition of distraction keeps our mind from wandering to other stimuli; and executive control describes the ability to override pre-learned assumptions.
Semple’s analysis revealed that subjects who practiced mindfulness meditation showed improvements in sustained attention not seen in those who trained in physical relaxation. Concentration and inhibition of distraction, in contrast, did not differ between the groups.
Although the study was small and short, it makes some progress toward our understanding of how mindfulness practice enhances specific aspects of attention.
The study was published in Mindfulness in 2010.